Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway

I’ve written about Islands in the Stream a couple of times, relating to specific points, (here and here), but not the novel in general. Overall, it’s pretty patchy and there’s definitely a feeling of diminishing returns as it progresses.

The first section, Bimini, is the best. Even this has longeurs – some of the descriptions of Paris streets and scenes, for example, are stretched well beyond this reader’s tolerance level – but the interplay of the family of men (the extended family that is, including Roger and Eddy) is particularly effective. Masculine perceptions of love – at least that sort of macho masculinity evinced by Hemingway) are peculiar: the emotion is mostly repressed but at times it bubbles over, allowing them to say to each other ‘I love you’ or ‘I love him’ in strikingly bold ways. That comes across here and so, while it could be argued that Thomas Hudson does not act as a father-figure to the boys, I would argue that in his own terms, and in terms that they would understand, he does.

Most critics seem to regard the second section, Cuba, as a failure, as a sign that his skills were on the wane. They also use this section, in particular, to demonstrate that the book was unedited (which it was, being published posthumously). I almost agree, but on the other hand I think it is close to being a masterpiece. Yes, it’s certainly repetitious, and in some instances that is definitely a fault – at the end, for example, when Hudson’s woman says twice how flattered she is by someone’s comments and that ‘she hopes he always thinks that’ is just sloppy.

But there are other repetitions that almost work. It is the extended scene with Honest Lil that is most effective for me. I never quite fell into the fictive dream with this section, but I almost, so nearly did. What Hemingway is describing is a long, drunken conversation between two people between whom there is a clear and long-standing affection. Each is unhappy, and Lil wants desperately for Hudson to be happy. Their conversation rambles in a typical – and realistically – drunken fashion, sweeping at times too close to personal territory, to emotional danger points, and then sweeping back out again into generalities, to safety, into ordering more drinks, into passing more time. There is such sadness in this small scene, so much unsaid that could and should be said, so much said that shouldn’t have been, and what we are presented with are two people who are – simply, unhappily – lonely.

It is very, very difficult to describe to outsiders a scene between two people which has built up over a long period of time and has encompassed a large number of alcoholic drinks. A gradual miasma settles over them and they almost become detached from what is happening around them. It is virtually impossible to distil the fluctuating emotions and capture the mood swings in such instances. The trouble is, the two characters enter into a zone of their own, but it takes a long time to reach. There are repetitions and longeurs and so on. The conversation does slide around and about, and tears and laughter can become almost interchangeable. It becomes an intensely emotional occasion. Even when there is no love it feels much like an affair. Anyone who has ever tried to write something similar will recognise how hard it is to make it sound a. credible and b. interesting. I wrote such a piece once, published here (but note, it’s only available for purchase, not free) which tried to do something similar and I can really appreciate the skill involved in Hemingway’s story.

But, overall, Cuba doesn’t quite work. I do think it is very close, and I think it is an under-rated piece of writing. Had he lived to work on it more, I think he would have made this superb.

The final section, At Sea, is the one that interests me least. Again, I think there is a lot of repetition, and it takes an inordinately long time to reach the principal action. When it does, it’s thumpingly well written – nervous and tense, taut, frightening. The ending, too, is powerful. Thomas Hudson’s recollections of his son, Tom, are predictable, I suppose, but no less effective for that. It is often a problem with war stories that you simply don’t know the characters outside of their war situation, and so it is difficult to feel much sympathy for them. Here, Hemingway draws us back to the man Thomas Hudson was and the life he once had, and it makes us realise that a human being is dying. Hudson’s interior monologues in this final section are far too lengthy and often uninteresting, dragging the story into dull introspection rather than providing any great insight, but when they do work they are fine, fine writing. This section, in particular, is moving:

Think about after the war and when you will paint again. There are so many good ones to paint and if you paint as well as you really can and keep out of all other things and do that, it is the true thing. You can paint the sea better than anyone now if you will do it and not get mixed up in other things. Hang on good now to how you truly want to do it. You must hold hard to life to do it. But life is a cheap thing beside a man’s work. The only thing is that you need it. Hold it tight. Now is the true time you make your play. Make it now without hope of anything. You always coagulated well and you can make one more real play. We are not the lumpen-proletariat. We are the best and we do it for free.

This sounds like a conversation from Hemingway’s own head, an argument with himself, one in which, on this occasion, hope wins. Hold on. Life is cheap but hold on.

We are the best and we do it for free.

That’s beautiful. Hemingway should have heeded his own words. But sometimes you just can’t hear Honest Lil, no matter how she tries.


Kate said...

I found this post searching for information on Islands in the Stream having just finished it, so I'm new to your blog. I'm not sure quite what to think of the novel yet. I feel like I liked it very much, just for the chance to look into Hudson's life with his sons and the aftermath of living without them, but really I am not sure what Hemingway was trying to say. May have to just let this one percolate for awhile.

I really enjoyed all three of your posts on IITS. The one about Hudson as a good or bad father and this one analyzing Hemingway's writing and the fact that the book hadn't been properly edited by the author were especially helpful to me getting more out of the book. Thanks!

Tom Conoboy said...

Hello Kate, thanks for writing. Glad you found my posts useful. I think IITS is an interesting work. Some of it is very affecting, some of it comes close to being excellent, and some of it just doesn't work.

I guess, for me, what I get out of is the character of Thomas Hudson. He could easily come across as cold, aloof, self-absorbed; but for me his humanity comes through and I feel there is genuine affection for his boys, albeit expressed in a reticent masculine way. And so his gradual decline into middle-aged loss of hope, and his eventual death, are moving.